Screwtape Explains a Crisis*

My dim-witted Wormwood, I write in haste. Stand down and – if you value your life – say no more of your proposal to anyone. For one thing, it has been tried (and how exquisitely that fool suffered for it – Satan digest his soul). For another, it shows how little you understand our program.

Yes, the fat is finally in the fire, but do not be intoxicated by the fumes. We have far to go and naturally our journey will end with a bonfire of churches, but for now we want them as they stand – bright white and innocuous.

I have not forgotten your inexperience, but can even you fail to see their importance? The humans have a term for changing bad resources into good – “money laundering”, I think it is – and this is our use for the Church. As you say, the Enemy’s words are heard there, and that is a risk, but less than you think. We have convinced many in the Church to set aside his words and promote our own views of sex and life and race and the rest – all under his flag! The laundering of our Father’s principles, the deprecation of the Enemy’s ideas, the marketing value of the Church marching alongside us, the embarrassment and suppression of those inside the Church who might have done us harm… All this, my short-sighted apprentice: THIS is the profitable enterprise you propose to burn down?!!

Now attend, and I will correct your thinking on the other project you mention.

Our hope for the virus is not to kill humans (they live briefly enough in any case), but to marinate them for our later enjoyment. The Enemy would have them prepare for their death by living bravely and well. We want them to consider death a surprising and preventable event. (I hear you laugh, but you know it works.) Give them terror of what they cannot avoid. Give them a sense of control that will always be frustrated. Set them at war against their own creaturely nature. That is the stuff that seasons their soul.

And there is a broader application. Your human’s nation, though substantially repaired in recent years, remains tainted. The little beasts are taught they were born to be free and they still speak openly of the Enemy and his ideas, even at state-sponsored events. I don’t need to tell you how this increases our workload. A decision has been made by the Lower Downs to deal with the country as a whole.

A task force is working to shift the nation to a new foundation, built upon the timeless and bracing themes of control and conflict, similar to our own organization’s constitution. Their current health crisis will advance this effort in several ways.

1. In times of peace, the creatures’ minds wander to beauty and the greater good, and we must prevent this. Keep them in a state of perplexity and fear through the next election – wearing face-masks wherever they go, separated from their friends and routines, hanging upon the “news” (delicious word!). We must, at all costs, preserve in their minds a state of emergency.

2. Like all good things, the virus will come to an end, but with care, we can draw it out a few more months. Of course, most humans are not physically affected and, if they once stop to think about this, they might go back to their lives, become immune, and our beautiful emergency would soon be over. By all means possible, we must flatten the recovery.

3. Our primary goal is to improve their elections, allowing us much greater influence in the process. The fear we nourish will obviously draw voters away from principle and toward perceived safety. Far more important, it will justify our plan to create wide-open spaces between voters and vote counters. We cannot yet control voters, but we will control their ballots, and that is enough for the moment.

I trust you now see, Wormwood, that your personal initiative is both unwanted and potentially harmful to our ongoing work. In the future, take care to do as you are told and lure your human patient along, or you may find yourself an entrée at the next quarterly barbecue.

Your voraciously affectionate uncle,


*Apologies to C. S. Lewis, author of the brilliant Screwtape Letters, from which the characters and concept are derived (…/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_U_GCTfFbB6G35…)

The Strange Tattoo

It’s a strange story, but it’s been told for thousands of years.  An irresistible crowd, following an irresistible leader, all wearing the same tattoo. 

It sounded sinister when I read the story as a kid, but I was missing the point.  There’s a lot to be said for irresistible force, as long as you’re moving with it.  And that tattoo – well, it doesn’t just get you into the crowd, it also gets you into the grocery store and the bank. 

I’m slow, but I think I finally get it.  The story is not about the leader.  It’s about us.

If this year has taught us anything, it’s this: America has become a wave pool of passion, and Americans are far more likely to dive in than ask where the waves are coming from.

And the waves are spectacular.  In just a few months we have all faced death, and then become systemically racist, and finally realized that our nation was always evil.  That’s quite a summer, and there’s more to come.

There’s more to come because waves don’t last very long.   They soar and smash and disappear.  They are big because they are big, and not because they are true.  They may be led by swimmers, but they are fed by floaters – by the much larger body of people who decide that resistance is futile, or at least too expensive.  Floaters are the real power behind every wave.  They magnify its force by bobbing along, adding their own weight to its influence.

Waves soar and smash and disappear, and all that remains is the damage… which makes you wonder where these waves are coming from because they all point at the same target.  In the old days of, say, six months ago, we called ourselves “a nation of laws and not of men”.  Today, we watch the lawless on TV, left free to destroy whatever they will.  Our leaders, too, are lawless, claiming for themselves new powers or standing quietly aside as others do, dismantling the system they were hired to protect.  We are quickly becoming a nation of men and not law.

I don’t think the beast of the Bible story is here, or that his mark is a mask or BLM t-shirt, but we begin to see how easy it will be.  The Antichrist will be a bum, of course, but he will have a few tricks up his sleeve, and that will be enough.  He will make waves, and many will dive in, and most of the rest will play it safe and bob along.  For the few who refuse, there will be fear and shame and a guy in front of the grocery store checking tattoos.

The Iconoclasts

It’s fun to be an iconoclast and it requires little training. You don’t need to understand what you’re smashing. You don’t need to be better than what you condemn. You don’t need to offer anything in exchange for what you destroy. If you seem angry enough, people will assume you have something to be angry about. They will assume that what you hate is evil.

It’s harder to take the other position. We’ve never met Lincoln, Grant, Washington, or the rest. There is a layer of dust on our memory of their lives. We didn’t build their statues or experience the problems they helped solve. We know they were real people, flawed as we are flawed, who nonetheless accomplished important things, but our loyalty to them is a dim, cobwebby, inherited thing.

And this is the battle of the moment. Our hazy memories against kids with ropes and spray paint. Our faded gratitude against their frantic rage. Our half-hearted defense of half-forgotten people against a frenzy of self-righteous indignation.

There are arguments to be made against every man, and history would have us make them, and then evaluate those arguments in the full light of day. But the iconoclast does not want light. His hour is darkness, hidden within an anonymous mob that honors no law and tolerates no debate.

He weaponizes history, ignoring his subjects’ culture and denying their suffering, reducing them to comic-book villains, representative of their villainous eras. He rejects his subjects’ limitations and humanity – makes them gods in order to make them devils. He makes them devils in order to discredit their gods.

But, of course, these famous men were not gods. They were humans born into a culture, just as we were born into a culture – humans who suffered and struggled and stood apart from their culture, often leaving it changed for the better. They were brave men, now being mocked by masked men. They were humble and dedicated men, now being judged by self-righteous and cowardly men. They were imperfect men, now being slandered by abysmal men.

It is our forgetting that makes us ripe for this revolution. We have forgotten the price that many paid for this freedom we were born into – our globally and historically unprecedented American privilege. We have forgotten the Creator who inspired our ancestors’ revolution and their painful journey toward equality. We have forgotten our own generation’s brutality to the aborted, even as we criticize their generation’s slow liberation of the enslaved.

It’s fun to be an iconoclast, until you have finally torn down everything you don’t understand. Then, at least, you may begin to understand.

Drawing the Wrong Lines

It was a moment like this. Angry and urgent. The shouting made it hard to think. That, and her weeping. They had scratched a line between his God and the woman sobbing at his feet, and lines have two sides. He had to choose one or the other.

The next time was different. They came quietly, respectfully. Carefully, they baited the trap, and then hung on his words, ready to pounce on whichever answer he gave. A line had been drawn between God and Caesar, and he would have to choose.

If there is a predominant intellectual sin today, it might be the one the Pharisees used. We draw lines in the wrong places and make people choose sides.

When a line is drawn in the right place, there is clarity. We are, for example, largely symmetrical creatures, living in a largely symmetrical world, and the truth of this is apparent if you draw the right line. Any other line turns clarity into chaos.

And what we have today is chaos because we are drawing the wrong line. We know this. You can learn no more about a man’s heart by the color of his skin than by the color of his toothbrush, but we’re drawing a line between races. Again.

It’s a stupid line, but also ancient, used on this continent and over much of the earth before there was an America. Our nation did not draw the line and our citizens have spilled an ocean of their own blood trying to erase it, in places like Gettysburg and Normandy and Selma.

It’s a stupid and destructive line, and we’re drawing it again.

Take the Brees family. Drew is a famous athlete and famously good guy. On Wednesday, he honored the American flag, apparently forgetting the flag is on the wrong side of the line On Thursday, he tried to get back on the right side of the line by accusing America of “systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality”, and claimed that respect for the American flag was “not an issue about the American flag” and “has never been”.

His wife tried even harder, confessing that “loving one another as God loves us” and raising their children “to love, be unbiased and with no prejudice” is part of what makes white people like them “the problem”. Instead, they should be “actively looking for racial prejudice” and repenting of “our preconceived notions of what that flag means to us”.

They tried so very hard to get back on the right side of the line. They took a knee, seemingly admitting that Christianity is not good enough and America is not good enough. In the brutality of this moment, nothing seems good enough.

So, imagine a nation without systemic injustice, where the same laws applied to everyone, regardless of race. A nation where anyone could rise to the highest positions of leadership or success, regardless of race. A nation where economic help was available during times of need, regardless of race. Oddly enough, you might be imagining America, a nation that has suffered to erase the stupid line between races.

And yet, here we are, a nation in flames.

When the woman was dragged weeping to Jesus’ feet, or when the Pharisees slyly inquired if Jesus would pay taxes, they were not looking for solutions. They drew their line carefully and dared him to cross it, anxious to light the fireworks they had prepared for the occasion. Instead, Jesus put out the fire by moving the line — away from their loud, controlling, judgmental system and back to the everyday choices of real people.

We will remain in flames until we do the same. “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” is not a religious cliché, it is the only possible foundation for civil society. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is still the best way to erase the stupid line between races and most other injuries we do to one another.

ML King believed all this and looked forward to a day when children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. His dream has gone suddenly out of fashion, but it’s still the right dream.

_______ lives matter

It is true, but we are forbidden to say it. It is the teaching of Christ, but we are forbidden to remember it. Instead, we say what we feel compelled to say, and by our compliance, we compel others to do the same.

What we are now compelled to say is true, so far as it goes. Jesus and his followers have been saying it for hundreds of dusty centuries, but Jesus will not receive credit for the discovery. Not even from his followers. No, this is a moment of cultural, and not religious, crescendo. We are witnessing the birth of an ethical development, and all must pay tribute or risk great offense.

The offense is real because our culture’s ethical developments are born of passion, not humility. Reaction, not reflection. They enlist our rage, not our repentance. They borrow from the ethic of Christ, which is written on our hearts, but are presented as new inventions.

And in a dangerous sense, they are new inventions. They borrow from Christ, not to honor him, but because there is no one else to borrow from. They borrow but distort, exaggerating one idea and cutting off another, creating an imbalance that suits their purposes.

There is nothing new in this and every year brings new examples. A moment ago, it was virtuous to stay in one’s home and trust the government. Today, it is virtuous to leave home and confront the government. Last year, we were to believe every accuser of the correct gender. This year, we want due process and distrust the concept of gender.

There is often truth at the heart of a new ethic – the bit that was borrowed from Christ and which resonates in our conscience – and this creates great confusion. How can one honor what is true, yet recognize and reject the distortions attached to it?

There are three answers for those who would honor Christ. The first is to tell the whole truth about ideas in our culture, remembering that every movement has its looters, seen and unseen. Praise what is true and popular (“Black lives matter”) while also declaring what is true and forbidden (“Every life matters”). Protest the evil that culture hates (e.g., brutality) and also protest the evil it ignores (e.g., kids being torn to bits).

The second is for us to follow Christ alone and resist those who would add to his message. There is no human movement that completes or improves the ethic of Jesus, whether feminism or socialism or racism/anti-racism. The promise of “Jesus plus ____” always becomes “Jesus minus” in practice.

Third, we should refer our neighbors back to the brilliance of Jesus. Every ethical movement borrows from him and we should credit him for the good in it. Peace and justice and love for one another are not only beautiful ideas; they are God’s ideas and his plan for this world. They are not to be found in new ethical developments, but in humbly submitting to what we have always known.

Culture is a jealous god. It claims moral authority. It demands compliance. Those who love their culture will peacefully reject its claims, gently resist its distortions, and faithfully point to the One from whom peace and justice flow.